Book Review: The Human Factor by Graham Greene

The Human Factor – Graham Greene (Penguin Books, 1985)

Maurice Castle lives a quiet life. Although he works for the English Secret Service, excitement is behind him and he now performs at a somewhat dull office job. All he wants is to live peacefully with his wife Sarah and their son and look forward to retirement. But Maurice’s small section of the Secret Service has a leak and suspicions are growing. And Maurice’s time spent working in South Africa has left a mark on him and what he is and isn’t willing to do. Especially because Sarah is an African woman.

The nice thing about reading Graham Greene is that you know you’re always going to end up reading a well-written, thought-provoking novel. While The Human Factor wasn’t my favourite read from Greene (that honour probably goes to The Heart of the Matter) it was still very good. Maurice might initially seem like a dull, uninteresting character but Greene slowly unfolds who he is, quietly building the tension as the novel progresses. And, as Greene does so well, muddying the waters of what is right or wrong. Who does Maurice Castle owe his loyalty to? Maurice wants to live a quiet life with his wife and child but that has never been straightforward for them, not since Maurice and Sarah met in South Africa where their relationship was illegal.

I think of Greene as an early 20th century writer and much of what I’ve read from him has been closer in time to World War Two so I was surprised to find this book set so late in the 20th century. It was first published in 1978 and is much more focused on both apartheid in South Africa and the Cold War and growing threat of the Soviet Union. I enjoyed this new time setting and learning more about the concerns of government at that time. A lot of books that focus on “the Soviet threat” come from an American perspective so I found it interesting to read about what the English secret service might have been thinking at this time.

All together, you can’t go wrong with Graham Greene and I’m glad to check another of his title’s off my list.

15 thoughts on “Book Review: The Human Factor by Graham Greene”

  1. I haven’t read Graham Greene since college, and I do believe I thought his books (The Third Man, The End of the Affair) were very slow. However, 18-year-old me was a profoundly different reader. I love, love, loved Trainspotting when I was 19-ish and read it for college, and I look back at it now and think what a hot mess it is and how director Danny Boyle took a messy book and gave it meaning.

    1. Those are two Greene novels I actually haven’t read. I could see how if you were expecting a spy novel or a thriller (which his work is sometimes marketed as) it would be disappointing. I wonder what you would think of him now. A lot of his work is very sexist but I liked the character of Sarah here who comes across as quite a strong woman.

    2. The Third Man is a detective novel, and I do not get on with those at all. I tend to feel stupid, left out, and confused the entire book. When the whole shebang is explained at the end, I typically still do not get it.

    3. I never, ever figure out the solution to mystery stories. I never get to the end and think, I knew that! But I also am not someone who is bothered much by unsolved mysteries so the detective genre is probably not really for me!

    4. It’s more like I feel like I don’t know what’s going on. Some detective novels purposely give you information you’re not ready to have, and thus my confused feeling. I might say that I would enjoy police procedurals better.

    5. I like the ones where they gather everyone at the end and explain exactly what’s been happening the whole time and then the bad guy is arrested and everyone else goes home happily.

    6. I haven’t read The Third Man, but I think The End of the Affair is the least compelling of all the books I’ve read by him and definitely not representative. If you fancy giving him another go, can I recommend Brighton Rock? I think that takes the best elements of his “entertainments” (the thriller-ish novels which he wrote explicitly for money) and his literary fiction, and combines them really effectively.

    7. You may! Thanks for the suggestion. As I commented just a moment ago to Karissa, The Third Man is one of those detective novels that I just cannot keep up with. My brain is too impatient for mysteries.

  2. I love it when writers continue to adapt to changing cultures over a long and prolific career – I haven’t read this one but I have noticed it with some of the other Greene novels I’ve read. He was a very different writer in the 50s to the 30s, and it sounds like he’d changed a lot again by this point. I haven’t read this one yet, but I think it’s in the little stack of Greenes that I am saving for a rainy day!

    1. It’s worth reading, especially in the context of his larger work. It is interesting to see the way he must have changed and developed as an individual, as glimpsed in his writing.

  3. I’m probably going to sound incredibly ignorant here, but I’ve never read a Graham Greene novel, and I’m not overly familiar with him, aside from hearing his name here and there. What was he known for? Is he still alive?

    1. He was a British writer predominantly writing, I’d say, around the world war 2 era. But I think he died in the early 90s so he wrote some later books, like this one. His most famous book is probably The Power and the Glory or maybe Brighton Rock. He wrote quite a bit about British politics and overseas policies (a lot of his books are set in different British colonial areas) and about Catholic faith. He is NOT the same person as the Canadian actor from the show North of 60. (Which is what I thought when I was first introduced to one of his novels in my teens.)

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